Flanking the island of Hispaniola to the northwest and east, Puerto Rico and Cuba traditionally have been referred to as las alas de la paloma, or “the wings of the dove.” They share more than a neighbor–plantains, rice and beans, salt cod, and other Caribbean foodstuffs are common in both cuisines–but each country offers its own take on these ingredients.
Puerto Rican cooking reflects a range of influences: the colonizing Spanish, the Africans who built the colony, and the resident Taino Indians, who grew crops including corn and chiles (both now used sparingly in Puerto Rican cuisine). The African influence shows up in arroz con gandules, a staple dish of rice and pigeon peas (sometimes called Congo peas after their place of origin) that’s typically sauteed in a sofrito (cooking base) of garlic, onions, and bacon; annatto seed gives the rice its distinctive yellow color.
At Latin Sandwich Cafe (4009 N. Elston, 773-478-0175) you can get your rice and peas alongside a Chicago original, the jibarito, a sandwich with two planks of fried plantain in place of bread. Juan Figueroa, owner of Borinquen (1720 N. California, 773-227-6038), takes credit for the creation of this dish: inspired by a newspaper recipe for a sandwich of meat stuffed between plantains, the story goes, he added lettuce, tomato, cheese, mayo, and plenty of garlic to produce the artery clogger that’s now the basis of a mini empire. (Borinquen has additional locations at 3020 N. Central, 773-622-8570, and 3811 N. Western, 773-442-8001.) The jibarito (which translates as “little hillbilly”) is available in beef, ham, chicken, and veggie versions as well as one with delectable lechon, roast suckling pig.
Borinquen is also an excellent source for traditional Puerto Rican dishes like mofongo, garlicky mashed plantains with bits of meat, usually bacon or crispy pork rinds. You can try mofongo at other Puerto Rican places, including La Isla (2509 W. North, 773-278-4433) and Cafe Central (1437 W. Chicago, 312-243-6776), where on weekends you can sample mondongo, a tripe soup similar to menudo.
Plantains also make an appearance in pasteles, savory tamales typically made with a vegetable dough that also includes green bananas, taro root, and pumpkin. Traditionally they’re stuffed with chicken or pork, flavored with annatto oil, and steamed in banana leaves. Cocina Boricua (2420 W. Fullerton, 773-235-2377) offers especially moist and subtly spiced chicken pasteles. For nibbling there are tostones, medallions of smashed and fried green plantain, or maduro, ripened sweet plantain fried just long enough to make the sugars caramelize on the surface.
Alcapurrias, fritters filled with beef or sometimes crabmeat, are a staple on the colorful lunch wagons more or less permanently moored in Humboldt Park, among them El Secreto del Sabor on the south end and Esquina del Sabor on the north. Both also carry a number of other Puerto Rican favorites including morcillas, a dark brown blood sausage, and habichuelas, beans (usually with ham mixed in). Cart fare is amazingly cheap–you can eat well at either wagon for about five bucks.
The cafeteria layout at La Palma (1340 N. Homan, 773-862-0886) allows visitors to survey the panorama of Puerto Rican cuisine at a glance. We chose vianda, an “up yours, Atkins” platter of bananas and root vegetables including yam and malanga, a tarolike tuber also known as cocoyam. On weekends try some cuchifrito, a stew of fried pig’s ear that, like mondongo and other traditional dishes, reflects the island tendency to eat head to tail.
One dish you’ll find in both Puerto Rico and Cuba is bacalao, a delicacy traditionally made with rehydrated dried salt cod, though it’s now more likely to incorporate a common fish like pollack. You can sample bacalao at La Palma (which offers it in either tomato sauce or oil) and at Cuban joints like La Unica (1515 W. Devon, 773-274-7788), a cafeteria and market whose shelves are filled with exotic goods from the island.
What arroz con gandules is to Puerto Rico, moros y cristianos–Moors and Christians, aka black beans and white rice–is to Cuba. At La Unica this staple is served alongside croquetas, little mounds of ground meat and bechamel sometimes accompanied by mojo (garlic sauce), and Cuban sandwiches, hard rolls filled with ham, cheese, marinated roast pork, and pickles, then pressed and grilled like panini. La Unica also offers dark, sweet Cuban coffee. If you’re farther south get your caffeine Cuban style at Cafe Marianao (2246 N. Milwaukee, 773-278-4533, and 4825 W. Armitage, 773-889-4973), where in addition they serve an outstanding version of the Cuban sandwich–also known as a medianoche, or “midnight,” sandwich–and a pan con tortilla, an omelet sandwich.
Ropa vieja is a traditional dish of meat stewed with peppers in a tomato-based criollo sauce; the name translates as “old clothes.” I’ve had good versions at Col-Ubas Steak House (5665 N. Clark, 773-506-1579) and Habana Libre (1440 W. Chicago, 312-243-3303), where the chunks of sweet pepper blend perfectly with the strands of tender beef. There’s no question that Cuban cuisine is meat heavy, but there are a few high-starch vegetarian options–for example the tasty stuffed plantain and yucca at Cafe Bolero (2252 N. Western, 773-227-9000).
Probably the best-known drink from the island is the Cuba Libre–a rum and Coke with lime–though these days the mojito (rum, lime, sugar syrup, mint, and soda) gives it a run for its money. Rum is of course also popular in Puerto Rico, the world’s largest rum producer–another example of tastes that span the wings of the dove. –David Hammond
For more restaurants, see our blog The Food Chain at chicagoreader.com.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/A. Jackson.